Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Julie P. Winch

Second Advisor

Roberta Wollons

Third Advisor

Kibibi V. Mack-Shelton


Black Master. It is difficult to digest, but numerous records indicate that thousands of free people of color in the antebellum South did in fact own slaves. Not only did they own slaves but, in some instances, they harshly disciplined and sold their slaves. In other instances, they treated them well and ultimately freed them. How and why they acted as they did was bound with the reasons why they became “Black Masters” in the first place.

Scholars initially focused on two main interpretations for decades until recent scholarship revealed a more complex antebellum southern society. One school of thought argued that African American slave owners were motivated by ties of family or friendship and were essentially benevolent. They were purchasing their spouses, children, parents, siblings, or friends in danger of being sold into a worse situation. In other words, they were well-intentioned would-be emancipators. If they were not well-intentioned would-be emancipators, then they must have been “race traitors” and equally or more morally corrupt than White slaveholders.

This research reveals another interpretation that has not been explored due to scholars’ tendency to overlook the nuances found in the lives of individual ex-slaves. Specifically, the focus of this research is not on the phenomenon of Black slaveholding but on how Black individuals whose lives were intertwined with White slaveholders created a culture that led to their transformation into “Black Masters” once they themselves were free.


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